Luther Vandross was facing a formidable crowd when he took the stage to perform “A House Is Not a Home” at the 1986 NAACP Image Awards. Janet Jackson was there, already a superstar thanks to her recently released Control, as was Anita Baker, a high-flying vocalist whose new Rapture album was well on its way to 5 million copies sold. Most notably, the crowd contained Dionne Warwick, the Entertainer of the Year honoree, who had released the Burt Bacharach–Hal David composition “A House Is Not a Home” as a single 24 years before.
Vandross was not intimidated — by the end of his performance, the crowd was roaring, and Warwick was wiping away a tear.
Vandross, a vocal fan of Warwick who collaborated with her during the Eighties, first released his cover of “A House Is Not a Home” in 1981. One of his innovations was to change the song’s pacing. Warwick’s version feels rushed, but this is a song that needs space to maximize its drama. Vandross opened it up and stretched it out. His version is seven minutes long — probably not an option for Warwick in 1964 — and it crawls.
He was also smart to change the arrangement. Warwick’s rendition was weighed down by the pop-opera scoring that often graced Bacharach and David songs in the Sixties. In this case, that’s a detriment; sometimes it sounds like Warwick is fighting to be heard above the strings and brass. In contrast, Vandross’ imperious pleading never disappears beneath the orchestra. He’s supported by rim-shot drums and thick bass; he also pivots into liquid funk during the eruptive outro, a vocal showcase that later served as the basis for “Slow Jamz,” a major hip-hop hit in 2003 for Kanye West, Twista and Jamie Foxx.
On stage in 1986, it’s remarkable the way Vandross is able to change the structure of a familiar song. He’s such an adept singer he can insert wildly long ad-libs — “goodnight” becomes “goodnight, good morning, good afternoon, hello, bye-bye baby, yeah yeah yeah” — and still find his way back to the beat. His voice is flexible enough to splinter a single “no” into six or eight parts and transform “love” into a colorful spray of falsetto. Many singers today have only worked on their high notes, but Vandross is equally impressive on the low end of his register, scraping the bottom in the line “even when there’s nothing there but gloom” to emphasize his devastation.
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Each of Vandross’ melodic deviations is greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd. Warwick, seated near the stage, alternates between joyous laughter and looks of jaw-dropping astonishment. Vandross ends the song with one final show of power, rising from the bottom of the scale through the full extent of his range on the word “me.” The camera cuts to Warwick, who appears to be concealing a tear.
Vandross’ remake of “A House Is Not a Home” was so thorough that nearly every singer of note who subsequently tackled the song — Ron Isley, Jaheim, Ne-Yo — has attempted to match his version. Vandross died in 2005, and a tribute album dedicated to him was released two months after. The only singer with the chops to attempt “A House Is Not a Home”? Aretha Franklin.
As Warwick put it in her autobiography, Vandross’ version was “so beautifully done, I was at a loss for words.” “I told him after the show that he really did not have to show off that much,” she added. “But I was happy that he did.”